Mapping Massachusetts, 1750-1801

The second half of the 18th century saw marked transitions in American mapmaking – stimulated initially by the requirements of the British colonial administration and later by those of the state government. First, there was a shift of emphasis from delineating external boundaries to documenting internal geographic, cultural and political detail. In a second development, the job of mapmaking was taken over by professionals who introduced the ideal of a systematic regional survey conducted to uniform standards.

Prior to 1750 printed maps provided only the sketchiest view of the Massachusetts interior. All this changed with the appearance of William Douglass’ seminal “Plan アガルート 土地家屋調査士.  of the British dominions of New England in North America” (ca. 1753). Based on original surveys, the plan was a staggering advance over earlier maps of the region.

Of primary importance was Douglass’ integration of official surveys and recent administrative decisions to show for the first time the rapidly growing matrix of township boundaries as well as many of the smaller lakes, rivers and streams. His map is striking for its contrast between the densely settled areas East of the Connecticut River and the relatively empty region to the West. “Plan of the British dominions” is also the first to map accurately Massachusetts’ external borders. In particular, he depicted the 1740 resolution of a long-running boundary dispute between Massachusetts and New Hampshire. This resulted in the boundary being set at three miles north of the Merrimack River as far as Pawtucket Falls, from which point it ran directly west.

The Douglass map is extremely rare, but far more accessible is Braddock Mead’s “Map of the most Inhabited Part of New England, ” published by Thomas Jefferys in 1755. Mead’s map follows rather closely that of Douglass, though with some significant improvements. For example, in Massachusetts Mead added new place names (such as “Pentusok, ” now Pittsfield), introduced county boundaries, and linked Cape Ann to the mainland whereas Douglass had depicted it as an island.

Following the Revolution, the government of Massachusetts urgently required an accurate map for at least three administrative objectives: calculating tax allotments to the towns based on land valuations, supporting the sale of public land to pay off war debts, and informing infrastructure development. Existing maps were too outdated and small scale to be of use. For example, dozens of townships established after the 1750s were not shown on the Douglass and Mead maps.

This presented the legislature with a dilemma, as public funding for a State Map would have been prohibitively expensive. So in 1774 it resorted to an unfunded mandate, requiring each town in Massachusetts to conduct a survey of its territory and submit a plan to the Secretary of State. These would then be compiled and where necessary reconciled to produce the official map.

The Resolve stipulated a number of quality requirements for the plans. They were to be at a uniform scale of 200 rods (ca. 3300 feet) to the inch, and township boundaries were to be carefully delineated as to length and compass bearing. They were to depict also many features of the natural and human landscape, including “… the names and course of rivers, the bridges over rivers, the course of county roads, the situation of houses for public worship, Court-Houses,… the breadth of rivers, the number and reputed magnitude of ponds, the falls of water, mountains, manufactories, mills, mines and minerals, and of what sort, iron-works and furnaces… ”

Though specific regarding content, the Resolve said little about methods. In particular, there was no reference to the advanced tools and techniques in use by European surveyors in North america as early as the 1750s. Presumably these were far beyond the limited financial and human resources of the individual towns. Consequently the hundreds of plans ultimately submitted were highly variable in terms of both accuracy and detail.

In 1797 Osgood Carleton, a Boston mathematician and mapmaker, and John Norman, a printer and mapmaker also based in Boston, were commissioned to compile and print the state Map. They were to receive no compensation, though after delivering 400 copies for official use they were free to profit from whatever sales they could generate. This model of state-local-private partnership was similar to one used by Vermont in 1790 and later adopted by New Hampshire 1803.

“An Accurate Map of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts” was published in 1798, with a vastly improved edition issued in 1801 and 1802 under the new title Map of Massachusetts Proper. For sheer volume of information this beautiful production represents a great advance over the Douglass and Mead maps. At 4 miles to the inch it is on a larger scale than any previous map of the region. This enables it to depict for the first time the road network, schools, meeting houses, and court houses, as well as the locations of key natural resources. It also provides a far stronger depiction of the complex pond, lake and river systems of the state. Finally, it reflects the rapid pace of settlement, with the region west of the Connecticut River now shown completely subdivided into dozens of new townships.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top